Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 80 (Part 2)

Psalm 80, continued

Stanza 2: Verses 8-14 [7-13]

Verse 8 [7]

“O Mighty (One) of (the) armies, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!”

Each of the stanzas of Psalm 80 begin with a similar refrain; here in verse 8 we have a slight expansion of the refrain in verse 4 (cf. the previous study). Some commentators would emend v. 4 to read “Mighty [One] of the armies”, as here in v. 8. For the expression “YHWH of the armies”(toab*x= hwhy), see the note on v. 5 in the previous study. As Creator, YHWH has command of the armies of heaven—the divine beings and the heavenly/celestial phenomena they inhabit/control; these armies fight on behalf of His people Israel, when God so wills it.

Verse 9 [8]

“A vine you did pull out from Egypt;
you drove out (the) nations and planted her.”

This second stanza summarizes the chief event(s) of the formative Israelite history—the Exodus and the conquest/settlement of the Promised Land of Canaan. This is done via the illustration of a vine to represent the nation of Israela proverbial motif that came to be well-established in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (cf. Gen 49:22; Judg 9:12-13; Isa 5:1-7; 27:2ff; Hos 10:1; Joel 1:7; Jer 2:21; 12:10; Ezek 15:1ff; 17; 19:10-14). The Exodus is clearly referenced here within the illustration: YHWH pulls the vine out (vb us^n`) of the ground in Egypt, uprooting it, and planting it in a new land. In order to plant the vine in this land (of Canaan), the peoples (nations) living there were driven out (vb uf^n`). There is both conceptual and alliterative (assonance) wordplay between the verbs us^n` (n¹sa±, “pull out”) and uf^n` (n¹‰a±, “plant [in]”). The idiom of YHWH planting Israel in the land of Promise can be found already in the Song of Sea (Exod 15:17).

I translate literally the feminine morphology and suffixes connected with the vine (/p#G#), treated in the Psalm as a grammatically feminine noun.

Verse 10 [9]

“You (work)ed (its) face before her face,
and made her roots take (deep) root,
and she filled (the entire) land.”

This verse breaks from the general 3+3 metrical pattern, reading as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon. The settlement of Israel in the Promised Land is described here in terms of the vine-motif. The ground is turned (vb hn`P*), i.e., tilled, prepared for the planting. I have translated this as working the “face” of the land (i.e. the ground, soil), so as to preserve the etymological wordplay between the verb hn`P* (“turn, face”) and the prepositional expression h*yn#p*l= (“before her face”). There is comparable wordplay in the second line, between the verb vr^v* (“[take] root”) and the suffixed noun h*yv#r*v* (“her roots”). Once the vine took root, it began to grow abundantly (as grape-vines tend to do), spreading out and filling the land. This refers to the continual conquest and settlement of the land by the Israelite people, and to their flourishing there. Eventually, of course the confederate nation would grow into a great kingdom (and regional empire), reaching its peak during the reign of Solomon.

Verse 11 [10]

“(The) hills were covered by her shade,
and (by) her branches (the) mighty cedars.”

This verse (returning to a 3+3 meter), expounds the final line of v. 10, and the idea that the vine spread out to fill the land. The vine grew so tall and great that its “branches” (tendrils) covered and cast shade over even the cedar trees on the hills. The construct expression “cedars of might” (la@ yz@r=a^) simply means “mighty cedars”. Conceivably, the reference to the “hills” here may allude to Israelite settlement of the hill-country.

Verse 12 [11]

“She sent forth her tendrils unto (the) Sea,
and to (the) River her (many) young shoots.”

The extent of the vine is here described a different way, clearly alluding to the boundaries of the Israelite kingdom at its greatest extent (under Solomon), reaching from the (Mediterranean) Sea in the west to the (Euphrates) River in the east. Like [n`u* in verse 11, the noun ryx!q* means “branch”; however, the extent of the vine’s spread should probably be understood in terms of the fresh grape-bearing tendrils at the end of the branches, parallel with tq#n#oy (“suckling”, i.e., [young] shoot) in the second line. The vine’s growth is so prodigious that there is an abundance of fresh tendrils spreading out in every direction.

Verse 13 [12]

“For what (reason then) did you burst her hedges,
(so) that all (those) passing by (the) way may pluck her?”

The motif of the vine’s great size and growth has here shifted to the idea of it being protected behind “hedges” (<yr!d@G+). It is not clear whether this refers to the Divine protection provided by YHWH, or to the nation’s own kingdom structures and defenses. In either case, YHWH has allowed the hedges to be “burst/broken through” (vb Jr^P*); the specific action-reference may be to YHWH breaking down the protective hedges. The destruction of the hedges allows anyone passing by to “pluck” the fruit from the vine. This use of the verb hr*a*, along with the feminine aspect of the vine-language (i.e., “pluck her [fruit]”), is suggestive of aggressive/violent sexual activity. Indeed, the implication is that the passers-by are acting with hostility and violence toward the vine (Israel). The conquests (by the Assyrians, etc) are being foreshadowed through this language.

Verse 14 [13]

“(The) boar from (the) forest cuts her to pieces,
and (the) moving (things) of (the) field feed on her!”

The idea of military conquest is more clearly alluded to in this climactic couplet. The “wild boar” from the “forest” could refer to any foreign invader; but probably the Assyrian conquests (of the northern territories) in the second half of the 8th century are specifically in view (cf. the discussion on the historical setting of the Psalm, in the previous study). The odd verb form hN`m*s=r=k^y+ probably should be related to the root <sk (“cut/tear off, shear”, cp. Akkadian kas¹mu, “cut to pieces”), as suggested by Dahood (II, p. 259). Once the vine has been torn down and cut apart, everything that moves (zyz]), i.e., every living creature, in the field can come and feed on it.

The Masoretes drew special attention to the word ru^Y`m! (“from [the] forest”) by writing the letters ru above the line (the so-called littera suspensa). The precise significance of this is not certain; several possibilities are mentioned in the note by Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 309.

Stanza 3: Verses 15-19 [14-18]

Verse 15a [14a]

“O Mighty (One) of (the) armies, please return!”

A shortened version of the refrain begins the third stanza (cf. the note on v. 8 above). Instead of the request “return to us”, the terser “please return”, with the particle of entreaty (an`), is used.

Verse 15b-16 [14b-15]

“Look down from (the) heavens and see—
and may you attend to this (your) vine,
and (so) secure what your right hand planted,
and (watch) over (the) son you yourself made strong.”

The call is for YHWH to pay attention to the condition of His ravaged vine—the nation/kingdom of Israel (esp. the northern territories, v. 2)—and so to respond with help and protection in its time of need. The wide-ranging verb dq^P* probably should be understood here in the basic sense of “attending to” something, exercising oversight, etc.

The couplet in verse 16 expounds what YHWH’s care for His vine entails. The initial word should be understood as a form of the verb /n~K* I, related to /WK, meaning “be firm”, parsed as an imperative with a paragogic (energic) h– suffix. The wish is that YHWH would keep His vine secure, preserving it, in the midst of further (and continuing) threats. The reference to a “son” in the second line seems a bit odd, the Psalmist appearing to mix his metaphors. The reference could be to the people of Israel (collectively) as YHWH’s “son”, or to the king as their representative; cf. on verse 18 below.

Verse 17 [16]

“They (who) have burnt her with such a scouring fire,
from (the) rebuke of your face may they perish!”

The Psalmist’s prayer in this verse takes the form of an imprecation against the hostile enemies of Israel, those who threaten to continue ravaging her. As noted above, it is presumably the Assyrian threat against the northern kingdom that is in view. The first stanza made clear that Israel had experienced great suffering and hardship, with military conquest being alluded to here in vv. 13-14 (cf. above). Such action is now made explicit, with mention of the enemy having burnt the vine (i.e. Israel) with fire.

The first word in the MT needs to be repointed as a plural form with an accusative h– feminine suffix (h*p%r*c=, “they have burnt her”, cf. Hossfeld Zenger, p. 310); Dahood (II, p. 260) suggests a plural participle, h*p#r=s). The final word of the first line, in the MT, hj*WsK= is also problematic. It is perhaps best explained as an emphatic –k preformative (= yK!) attached to a verbal noun from the root hj*s* (cp. jWs), meaning “scouring”; here it would refer to a fiery blaze that sweeps things away.

This fire of judgment is expressed in the second line in terms of the burning anger that comes from YHWH’s face. It is a “rebuke” that will destroy the enemies of Israel.

Verse 18 [17]

“May your hand be over (the) man of your right (hand),
over (the) son of (the) man you yourself made strong.”

This verse expounds upon the statement in the second line of verse 16 (cf. above). The Israelite king may well be in view, as suggested by Dahood (II, p. 260). YHWH’s “hand” refers to the protection He provides, as part of His covenant obligation.

Verse 19 [18]

“For (see,) we shall not (ever) turn back from you:
(so) restore us to life, that we may call on your name!”

Here the Psalmist identifies himself with the righteous/faithful ones of Israel—and identification which, in large part, serves as the basis of his prayer to God for help. Based on the covenant bond, YHWH is obligated to give help and protection to those who remain loyal to Him. The protagonist in the Psalms frequently makes his petition with this idea of covenant loyalty in mind. The imperfect verb form in the first line can be translated a number of ways: (1) as a past tense (“we have not turned away”), (2) as a future tense (“we will not turn away”), or (3) as an emphatic jussive (“we shall not [ever] turn away”). I have opted for the latter, with the initial –w conjunction also as an emphatic, heightening the emphasis.

The verb form of hy`j* (“live,” Piel stem) in the second line also can be understood different ways—i.e., “keep us alive”, “preserve our life”, “restore us to life”. I have chosen the last of these (cf. also Dahood, II, p. 261).

Conclusion: VERSE 20 [19]

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of (the) armies, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!”

The introductory refrain found in each stanza (vv. 4, 8, 15) is repeated here, in its fullest form, at the conclusion of the Psalm. It serves as a final call, and prayer to God, for salvation.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 80

Psalm 80

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

This is another lament-Psalm (cf. the previous study on Ps 79), in which the Psalmist, representing the people (the righteous/faithful ones), prays to YHWH for deliverance. Dahood (II, p. 255) describes this Psalm as belonging “to the last days of the Northern Kingdom,” and this is almost certainly correct. From the opening verses, it is clear that the focus is on the northern territories. They have apparently been ravaged, but not yet completely conquered. The aftermath of the campaigns of Tiglath-Pileser III (734-733 B.C.) would provide an appropriate setting. Readers of a certain traditional-conservative mindset may find such an historical context troubling, since it would seem to imply that the Psalmist’s prayer was not answered by YHWH—at least as regards the fate of the Northern Kingdom. However, this in no way invalidates the prayer as an expression of faith and hope. The righteous will be protected by YHWH, even in exile, and their descendants will eventually be restored to the Land.

The structure of Psalm 80 is defined by the repeated refrain, calling on YHWH to “return” (vb bWv Hiphil stem) to His people and save them. It seems better to view the refrain as representing the opening call for each stanza. I would divide the Psalm as follows:

    • Vv. 2-3—Invocation to YHWH on behalf of the northern tribes
    • Vv. 4-7—Stanza 1: Lament to YHWH
    • Vv. 8-14—Stanza 2: Illustration of the Vine
    • Vv. 15-19—Stanza 3: Prayer to YHWH
    • Verse 20—Concluding refrain

This is the eighth in a sequence of 11 Psalms (7383) attributed to Asaph; on whom, cf. the earlier study on Psalm 50. The meter of Psalm 80 is irregular, but tends to follow a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format.

The musical direction in the heading matches that of Psalm 60 (cf. the earlier study), as a poem sung to an existing melody—the melody in this case being <yN]v^ov, “lilies” (cf. also Pss 45 and 69). The poem is also designated as an tWdu@, usually translated “testimony,” but properly referring to words that are to be repeated. In Ps 60, the indication is that there is a didactic purpose to the poem, which is “to be taught” (dM@l^l=), much like the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32; however, such a purpose is not as clear here for Ps 80. Perhaps the idea is that, even after the original historical context of the poem had passed, it was still useful for instruction, as a lesson for the people.

Invocation: Verses 2-3

Verses 2-3a [1-2a]

“O Shepherd of Yisrael, give ear,
(you) leading Yôsep like the flock;
sitting (between) the kerûbs, shine forth
before (the) face of Eprayim, [Binyamin] and Menašše!

These are the first two of the three couplets that open the Psalm, functioning as an invocation to YHWH, with the Psalmist calling on God to hear (lit. “give ear” to it) and answer his prayer. The needed response involves an action on behalf of the Israelite people, to save and protect them; this is described in terms of YHWH “shining (forth)” (vb up^y`, Hiphil stem). The theme of YHWH as a herder, guiding and protecting his people (as a flock/herd), was featured in the three previous Psalms (77:20; 78:52-53, 70-71; 79:13); it is a traditional motif, best known from Psalm 23 (cf. the earlier study). It is through YHWH’s manifest presence among the people, symbolized by his sitting on/above the Golden Chest (Ark) as his ‘throne’ (with its winged kerubs), that He guides Israel.

The northern focus is indicated by the pairing of Israel and “Joseph” = the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. The Psalmist’s prayer represents the northern tribes (i.e., the northern kingdom), pleading to YHWH on their behalf. The ravaging threat of the Assyrian military is presumably in view; as noted above, historical setting of the Psalm may be the aftermath of the campaigns by Tiglath-Pileser III (734-733 B.C.).

The 3-beat meter would be preserved by omitting “Benjamin” from the final line, which is otherwise too long; this would also provide a cleaner parallel with “Joseph” in the first couplet. As there is no textual basis for omitting “Benjamin”, I have retained it in brackets above.

Verse 3b [2b]

“May you rouse your strength,
and come to (bring) salvation for us!”

This couplet is also irregular (2+3), and provides a more direct plea to YHWH for salvation. The call is for God to “awaken” (vb rWu I), i.e., to rouse Himself from ‘sleep’ (i.e., inaction). The implication is that He should act on behalf of His people, using His great might/strength. This means providing a military defense (and victory) that will save the Northern Kingdom from the Assyrians.

Stanza 1: Verses 4-7 [3-6]

Verse 4 [3]

“O Mightiest, return (to) us!
Let your face shine that we might be saved!

As noted above, this refrain begins each of the three stanzas (see vv. 8, 15), being repeated again in the final verse (v. 20). The wording varies slightly in each instance; thus, one should not be too quick to fill out the first line here (i.e., “Mighty [One] of the armies”), even though this would produce a more consistent 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The 2+3 meter of the verse as it stands (in the MT) matches that of the previous v. 3b.

The call is for YHWH to “return” (vb bWv) to His people. The use of the Hiphil (causative) stem could be understood in the transitive sense of “make us return”, i.e., “restore us”, in which case it would be possible to read the Psalm as post-dating the fall of the Northern Kingdom. In the initial invocation (cf. above), this returning is described through the idiom of YHWH fulfilling His role as Herdsman of His people, guiding and protecting them (from all threats). The idiom of YHWH “shining” forth (here, lit. “giving light”, roa Hiphil) also was introduced in the invocation (vb up^y` Hiphil). The motif of God’s “face” implies His protective presence, but also the manifestation of His anger—viz., against the enemies of His people (who are also His enemies).

Verse 5 [4]

“YHWH, Mighty (One) of (the) armies—
until when will you smoke (in anger)
at the prayer of your people?”

This verse is slightly irregular, and I treat it here as a 3+2+2 tricolon. The full expression “YHWH Mighty (One) of (the) armies” here perhaps explains the shortened form in v. 4 (cf. above), so as to avoid cumbersome repetition. The “armies” (toab*x=) refers to the heavenly/celestial entities, which YHWH created, and which do His bidding. They function as soldiers under His command, who fight on behalf of His people Israel. For references in the tradition of the celestial bodies (and other forces of nature) fighting for Israel, see, e.g., Josh 10:10-11; Judg 5:20-21; the storm-theophany applied to YHWH, has a strong militaristic emphasis, and is part of the same broad tradition (frequently in the Psalms, 18:10-14; 77:17-18; 144:5-6, etc). The more common expression is “YHWH of (the) armies”, which may preserve the original verbal force of the Divine name, i.e., “(the One) causing the (heavenly) armies to be” (i.e., creating them); cf. Cross, pp. 68-71.

In the refrain of v. 4, the implication is that YHWH’s anger (i.e., His “face”) should burn against Israel’s enemies, rather than against His own people. But here in verse 5 it is clear that, at least recently, His anger has been “smoking” (vb /v^u*) against Israel, presumably alluding to attacks by the Assyrians on the Northern Kingdom. Instead of smoking against their prayers, the Psalmist asks that God would answer their prayers (in favor of them), and burn/smoke with anger against Israel’s enemies.

Verse 6 [5]

“You have made them eat (the) bread of tear(s),
and made them drink tears three (times over).”

The suffering of the people is clear from this couplet, utilizing the traditional ancient Near Eastern motif of eating/drinking tears (cf. Psalm 42:4[3]; 102:10[9]) as a expression of extreme sorrow; this motif occurs, for example, in the Canaanite Baal Epic (Tablet VI, col. 1, lines 9-10, “she is sated with weeping, drinks tears like wine”). The final word vyl!v* presumably means “three (times over), threefold” (or possibly “three times [a day]”); however, Dahood (II, p. 257) suggests that the word may be related to Ugaritic ¾l¾, thus referring to a bronze/copper bowl or container (i.e., drinking a bowl full of tears).

Verse 7 [6]

“You have set us as strife for (those) dwelling by us,
and (those who) are hostile to us mock at us.”

The noun /odm* typically denotes some kind of fighting or strife, which fits the parallelism of Israel’s neighbors (“[those] dwelling [near]”) being hostile (vb by~a*); for a different explanation of /wdm, cf. Dahood, II, p. 257. Presumably, the mocking of Israel by her neighbors is a response to the Assyrian attacks, which have ravaged the Northern Kingdom and greatly reduced its status. Those hostile to the Israelites would naturally take advantage of the situation to mock and belittle them still further.

According to the MT, the suffixes in v. 6 are 3rd person plural, while those here in v. 7 are 1st person plural. This shift, it would seem, reflects the Psalmist’s identification with the people, functioning as their representative in prayer to YHWH. Most commentators follow the minority reading of the MSS (along with the LXX), Wnl* (“at us”) rather than the majority text oml* (“at them”).

The remainder of the Psalm (Stanzas 2 and 3) will be discussed in next week’s study.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).

January 2: Isaiah 8:23ff

Isaiah 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7]

The poem in 9:1-6 [EV 2-7] brings the section of 6:1-9:6 to a close. It functions as an appendix to the section, and, in its literary setting, offers a message of hope to the survivors and exiles of the shattered Northern Kingdom. The poem is preceded by a narrative introduction (8:23 [9:1]), which clearly sets the message of the poem in the context of the 8th century Assyrian crisis. The Assyrian conquests of 734-732 remain the primary focus throughout this section; however, as we have seen, the fall of the Northern Kingdom (722/721) and the devastating invasion of Judah (701) are also in view. The compilation of 6:1-9:6 as a whole almost certainly took place after 701.

There are certain textual questions in 8:23 which need to be addressed.

Isaiah 8:23a[Wum* can be derived from [ou (“fly, flutter”) or [ou (“be dark”); the former would indicate a negative situation (“there will be no flying/fluttering” [that is, release/escape, or perhaps poetically as “daybreak”]), the latter a positive one (“there will be no darkness”). The referent for the feminine suffix Hl* is unclear: it could refer to any of the feminine nouns in verse 22 (Jr#a# [“land”], hk*v@j& [“darkness”], or parallel hr*x*/hq*ox [“distress, oppression”]), or it could look forward to the “land” of 8:23b/9:1. The preposition could have the sense of “for her” or “from/by her”.

Isaiah 8:23b—Does /ovar!h* (“the head” [i.e. the first, former]) modify the prior common/feminine noun tu@ (i.e. “as at the first/former time, [when] he…”), or does refer to an implied (masculine) subject (i.e. “as at the time [when] the first/former one…”); this affects the parallelism with /orj&a^h* (“the following” [i.e. the later]): is it a former/later time or former/later person? The verbs llq and dbk (in the Hiphil) mean “make light” and “make heavy” respectively; the former can either have the sense of “treat with contempt/dishonor” or “lighten, make easier”, the latter “treat with honor” or “make heavier [i.e. more difficult]”. Then, is the parallelism synonymous or antithetical? In the historical context, how do these verbs relate to the territories of Zebulon, Naphtali, the Transjordan and Galilee?

These questions are important for establishing the basic context for the poetic oracle that follows. Compare the very different renderings of two modern critical commentaries (by J. J. M Roberts [Hermeneia, 2015, p. 144] and Joseph Blenkinsopp [Anchor Bible, 2000, p. 245-6]:

Roberts/Hermeneia

…Surely it will be without daybreak to the one distressed by it.

As at the former time he treated with contempt
<The Sharon and the land of Gilead,>
The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali,
So at the latter time he has honored the way of the sea,
Trans-jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who were walking in darkness
Have seen a great light…

Blenkinsopp/AB:

There is no gloom for her who is oppressed. At that time the earlier ruler treated with contempt the territory of Zebulon and Naphthali, and the later one oppressed the way of the sea, the land across the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people that walk in the dark Have seen a great light…

In my view, Roberts is correct in understanding a contrast between the verbs (in the Hiphil) ll^q* (“make light [of]”) and db^K* (“give weight [to]”), in the sense of “disregard” vs. “honor”, and that YHWH is the implied subject. In allowing the Assyrian conquests to take place, God was “making light of” Israel, but now He will “give weight to” (i.e., honor) her. Here is my translation of the verse:

“(It is) that (there is) no darkness (now) for (the one) whom (there had been) distress for her; as (in) the former time (when) He made light (of) the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, even (so in) the later (time) He has given weight (to the) way of the sea, (the land) across the Yarden, (and) Galîl of the nations.”

However, there is no contrast between the territories mentioned. All five designations refer equally to the Northern Kingdom, but the last three specifically refer to areas that were turned into Assyrian provinces after 732: D¥°ru (Dor, “the way of the sea”), Gal±azu (Gilead, “[the land] across the Jordan”), Magidû (Megiddo, “Galilee of the nations”); cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 247; Roberts, p. 147f. The implication is that God will restore honor to these territories, by restoring them within a united Israelite Kingdom, under the leadership of a new king in Judah/Jerusalem. This is the focus of the poem that follows.

There are fewer problems of interpretation in the poem proper, the stanzas of which can be outlined as follows:

    • V. 1: Light shines for those in darkness
    • V. 2: Joy will be increased, with two-fold motif: (a) harvest, (b) army dividing spoils
    • V. 3: Three connected symbols of oppression—yoke, cross-bar, and rod/whip—will be smashed
    • V. 4: The signs and remains of warfare and conquest (shoes, blood-caked garments) will be burned
    • V. 5: Announcement of the birth of a child (son), along with symbol(s) of government and (royal) titles
    • V. 6: A promise to establish/maintain the greatness and (eternal) rule of the Davidic kingdom

With regard to this poem, critical scholars have given various dates to it, ranging from Isaiah’s own time (c. 730-700 B.C.) down to the post-exilic period. An exilic or post-exilic date would make a Messianic orientation much more plausible, but I find little evidence in these verses for such a setting. The closer one comes to Isaiah’s own time, the much less likely a future (Messianic) interpretation would be as the primary sense of the passage. This is particularly true if we take seriously the overall context of Isa 6:1-9:6, which is set rather securely in the period c. 740-732 B.C.

Assuming this context still applies to 8:23, the regions mentioned (Zebulon, Naphtali, Transjordan [Gilead], Galilee and the northern coastal plain [“way of the sea”]) represent areas which suffered under Assyrian attack 734-732 B.C., and were effectively annexed to become Assyrian provinces (cf. above). The message of 9:1-6 is directed, in part, to the Northern kingdom (“the people who walk in darkness”)—there is no indication that Samaria has fallen completely yet. Of course, Assyria still threatened the Southern kingdom of Judah, and would launch a devastating attack some years later (this will become the central event of the remainder of the first half of the book [up to ch. 39]). Here God promises (expressed in the prophetic perfect: “he has increased joy”, “he has smashed”, etc.) to deliver Israel/Judah from her enemies, bringing a renewed period of peace and prosperity.

December 30: Isaiah 8:5-10

Isaiah 8:5-10

“And YHWH proceeded to speak to me again, saying…” (v. 5)

Verse 5 begins a new oracle, though the references to Rezin and “the son of Remalyah” (i.e., Pekah) in v. 6 make clear that we are still dealing with the Syro-Ephraimite crisis (735-734 B.C.) which was the setting of the prior oracles. There are, indeed, a number of points of contact with the four previous oracles, including the river/canal imagery here, which may allude to the locale of the first oracle in 7:1-9, when Isaiah met Ahaz at the canal of the Siloam pool (v. 3).

“(In) response for (how) this people has refused (the) waters of the offshoot traveling softly, and having rejoiced with Rezin and (the) son of Remalyah, indeed for this (reason), see! My Lord is bringing up over them (the) waters of the (great) River, mighty and manifold—(the) king of Aššur {Assyria} and all his weight—and (they) shall come up over all its channels and travel over all its banks.” (vv. 6-7)

The basic contrast here is clear enough—between a soft/gently (fa^) moving stream and a powerful flood of water overflowing its banks. The noun j^l)v! literally means something like “offshoot”, or “branch”, but in context here certainly refers to a water-canal. It may be the name of a specific canal carrying water from the Gihon spring to the pool of Siloam (cf. the locale of the oracle in 7:3, mentioned above). This canal is contrasted with “the River” —that is, the Great River (Euphrates), with its mighty (<Wxu*) and many (br^) waters. Obviously, the Assyrian empire is being referenced, which would have been clear to the audience, even without the specific mention of the “king of Assyria”, which could conceivably be a secondary gloss.

Because “this people” refused (vb sa^m*, also in 7:15-16) the gentle-moving and beneficial waters of the canal, YHWH is bringing upon them instead the powerful and destructive waters of the Euphrates. This ‘refusal’ is defined in terms of “rejoicing” (vb cWc) with Rezin and Pekah, i.e., the kings of Aram-Damascus and Israel. There is some textual uncertainty regarding the form cwcm. The Masoretic Text (supported by the Qumran MSS 4QIsae-f) vocalizes it as a construct noun (vovm=), while the great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) apparently reads a Hiphil participle (cyc!m*). In any case, a verbal noun (from the root cwc), would seem to be correct.

The idea of “rejoicing” with Rezin and Pekah surely means, in context, supporting the anti-Assyrian coalition of Aram-Damascus and Israel. Some commentators (e.g., Roberts, p. 133f) would identify “this people” as the people of the northern kingdom of Israel, but this does not seem to be correct. The overall context (of chaps. 7-8), in my view, overwhelmingly argues for the oracle addressing the people of the southern kingdom of Judah. There must have been a portion of the Judahite population (and its ruling class) that would have been in favor of joining the anti-Assyrian coalition, and, indeed, there is some evidence that Ahaz himself vacillated between the two positions. The thrust of the condemnation is that such people are relying upon the political/military forces of the coalition, rather than placing their trust on YHWH for protection.

“And it shall pass on in(to) Yehudah, shall wash (past) and (flood) over, (even) up to (the) neck it shall touch. And he shall be stretching out his wings, filling (the) breadth of your land, Mighty-with-Us!” (v. 8)

No specific mention is made of the judgment against Aram-Damascus and Israel. Rather, it is simply assumed that the floodwaters of the Assyrian army will (or has already) overrun the northern kingdoms, and will now reach all the way “into Judah”. The entire Judean kingdom will be flooded, using the image of a person standing in water up to his/her neck. The lone ‘head’ that is left above the waters certainly alludes to the city of Jerusalem and the ‘remnant’ of Judah that survives the Assyrian invasion (in 701 B.C.). Possibly, at the historical level, this oracle is to be dated to a time after the conquest of the northern kingdoms (at least after 733-732), and thus more clearly anticipating the coming invasion at the end of the 8th century. The survival of the Judean kingdom (and the city of Jerusalem) is alluded to by the mention of the name la@-WnM*u! (±Imm¹nû °E~l, “God [is] with us”); cf. the earlier notes on 7:14.

“Know (this), O peoples, and be shattered,
and give ear, all distant (part)s of (the) earth:
Gird yourselves and be shattered!
Gird yourselves and be shattered!
Devise a plan, and it shall be split (apart),
Speak a word, and it shall not stand—
for (the) Mighty (One is) with us!”

Commentators who view vv. 9-10 as a later poem, inspired by the Isaian oracles, are probably correct. It certainly fits the way the Isaian traditions (of the 8th and early 7th century) seem to have been utilized and developed, by the author/editor(s) of chapters 2-39 (not to mention the Deutero/Trito-Isaian poems of chaps. 40-66). The promise of divine protection for Judah/Jerusalem, in the context of the 8th century Assyrian invasions, is here expanded to encompass all the nations of the earth, anticipating the culmination of the Isaian nation-oracle traditions that we find in the so-called ‘Isaian Apocalypse’ of chapters 24-27. Attempts by the nations to attack or threaten God’s people are doomed to fail, because YHWH is with His people. Here, the sentence name la@-WnM*u! (±Imm¹nû °E~l) needs to be understood as a definitive statement, rather than a name: “The Mighty One [la@, i.e. God] is with us [WnM*u!]”.

These lines will be discussed in a bit more detail in the next daily note.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia (Fortress Press: 2015).

December 28: Isaiah 8:1-4

Isaiah 8:1-4

This is the third of three oracles in the section, each of which involves a child with a symbolic name, relating to the Syro-Ephraimite crisis of 735-4 B.C., and the looming specter of an Assyrian invasion. The place and significance of the child in this particular oracle is extremely close to that of the oracle in 7:10-17. At the same time, there is a parallel with the first oracle (7:3-9), in that the child, in both oracles, belongs to Isaiah. This has led commentators to posit that all three children were Isaiah’s. I do not believe that this is correct, but the question will be discussed further, in the next daily note.

There is a short, but rather enigmatic, narrative introduction to the oracle; or, perhaps, it would be better to say that the oracle is embedded within the narrative itself. It begins as follows:

And YHWH said to me: “Take for yourself a great [i.e. large] clear tablet and write upon it with (the) engraving (tool) of an (ordinary) man, ‘(Belonging) to Mah¢r-Š¹l¹l-„¹š-Baz.'” (v. 1)

The noun /oyL*G] (from the root hl*G`, “uncover”) refers to a smooth, clear flat surface, as of a mirror or a blank tablet for writing. The latter is in view here, and thus the fr#j# (“engraving [tool]”) is a writing stylus (or pen). The precise meaning of the qualifying element (“[of] a man”) is not certain; it may simply connote “ordinary, common,” i.e., an ordinary writing tool.

On the tablet, Isaiah is commanded (by YHWH) to write the phrase “Belonging to [-l=] Mah¢r-Š¹l¹l-„¹š-Baz [zB^-vj*-ll*v*-rh@m^]”. The unusual compound phrase-name, given here untranslated, apparently means something like “(Be) quick (for) plunder, hurry (for) prey”. No one would name a child this way, under ordinary circumstances; but the name was intentionally chosen because of its prophetic significance, being tied to the oracle of judgment delivered by Isaiah. The names given to the child in the first two oracles—Š®°¹r Y¹šû» (“A-Remnant-will-Return”, 7:3) and ±Imm¹nû °E~l (“God-[is]-with-Us”, 7:14)—have a similar significance.

And I called as witnesses for me (con)firm(ing) witnesses, YHWH-(is)-my-Light {Uriyahu} the priest, and YHWH-has-Remembered {Zecharyahu}, son of YHWH-Blesses {Yeberekyahu}. (v. 2)

The verb dWu here is denominative, derived from the noun du@ (“witness”), carrying a specific nuance of the root dwu (“repeat, do again”) that appears to be unique to Hebrew. The verb /m^a* denotes “be/make firm”, here in the sense of the witnesses confirming (verifying) what it is that Isaiah has written (on the legal principle of two witnesses being present, cf. Deut 17:6; 19:15); the participle (verbal adjective) also connotes the character of the witnesses as trustworthy and reliable. The authenticity of the prophecy that Isaiah is committing to writing (cf. below) will be confirmed, for future reference, by these witnesses; cp. the situation in 30:8-11. The priest Uriah is presumably the high priest (2 Kings 16:10-16), while the Zechariah mentioned here may be the father-in-law of king Ahaz (2 Kings 18:2). Cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 238.

And I came near to the ha*yb!n=, and she became pregnant, and gave birth to a son. And (the) YHWH said to me: “Call his name ‘(Be) quick (for) plunder, hurry (for) prey'” (v. 3)

The concision of the narrative creates a certain confusion, in terms of the relationship between verses 1-2 and 3-4. The events described in vv. 3-4 almost certainly would have taken place prior to those in vv. 1-2. In other words, what Isaiah records (before witnesses) in vv. 1-2 is the prophecy given to him by YHWH in vv. 3-4, an oracle that relates to the unusual name assigned to the child.

Isaiah “came near” (vb br^q*) to a woman (designated as a female ayb!n`), which is a euphemistic expression for sexual intercourse. It is not clear that this woman was Isaiah’s wife; almost certainly, the wife of a ayb!n` would not have been called ha*yb!n=, unless she herself was a ayb!n` (such as Huldah, cf. 2 Kings 22:14). The fundamental meaning of the noun ayb!n` is of a spokesperson for YHWH—that is, one who functions as God’s representative, communicating His word and will to the people. When this child was born (i.e., sometime before the writing by Isaiah in vv. 1-2), YHWH commanded the prophet to give the child the unusual name Mah¢r-Š¹l¹l-„¹š-Baz [zB^-vj*-ll*v*-rh@m^], “(Be) quick (for) plunder, hurry (for) prey”.

“(For it is) that, in (the time) before the young (child) shall know to cry ‘My father’ and ‘My mother’, the strength of Damešek {Damascus} shall be carried (away), and the plunder of Šomrôn {Samaria}, before (the) face of (the) king of Aššûr {Assyria}.” (v. 4)

The substance of the oracle is presented in verse 4, explaining the name given to the child. The hastening for plunder/prey refers to the invasion of the northern kingdoms (of Aram-Damascus and Israel) and their conquest by the Assyrians (led by king Tiglath-Pileser III). The time-indicator for this will be discussed in the next note, along with a comparison of the three child-signs (and symbolic names) of these three oracles.

References above marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale University Press: 2000).

December 27: Isaiah 7:18-25

Isaiah 7:18-25

These verses contain prophetic sayings of judgment against the kingdom of Israel, each beginning with “(and it shall be) on that day…”. It is possible that they were originally uttered in a separate context, only later being connected with the oracles in 7:1-17 (and 8:1-4). While they fit the overall message of judgment, against Aram-Damascus and the Northern Kingdom, the closing words of v. 17 (cf. the previous note) give these sayings a greater sense of immediacy. The reference to the “king of Assyria” provides the literary impetus for the prophetic sayings in vv. 18-25.

Probably these sayings originally were directed against the Northern Kingdom, but they would also have applied as a warning to the Southern Kingdom. And, indeed, in the wider context of chapters 2-39, they could function as a prophecy of the devastating invasion of Judah by Sennacherib at the end of the 8th century.

Saying #1 (vv. 18-19)

“And it shall be, on that day, (that) YHWH shall whistle, to the fly that is on (the) edge of (the) streams of Egypt, and to the bee that is in (the) land of Aššûr {Assyria}, and they shall come and shall rest, all of them, in (the) wadis of the steep (rock)s, and in (the) holes of the cliffs, and in all the thorn-bushes, and in all the (place)s one leads (flocks to drink).”

The basic meaning of this colorful imagery is clear enough. The Assyrians, along with the Egyptians, will invade the land like a swarm of flies and bees, and will take their place in every part of the land (no matter how small or remote). The image of a swarm of angry, stinging bees is appropriate for depicting an invading army (cf. Deut 1:44; Psalm 118:2). Flies are more of a nuisance, and here they presumably allude to Egypt’s status as a subordinate (ally) to Assyria. The historical reference may be to the pro-Assyrian position of the Nubian Pharaoh Shabako (c. 716-702), or to Shebiktu (c. 702-690) as an unreliable ally (a “broken reed”, 36:6) for Judah against the Assyrian threat; cf. Blenkinsopp, p. 236. There is some evidence that the Nubians had ties with Assyria even earlier (c. 732-720), even to the point of sending troops to aid Sargon in his siege of Gaza (cf. Roberts, p. 126).

Saying #2 (v. 20)

“On that day, my Lord shall shave with a razor th(at is) hired—(done) by (those) beyond (the) River, by (the) king of Aššûr—the head and (the) hair of the feet [i.e. genitals], and also the aged (beard) it shall sweep (away)!”

This second saying utilizes the motif of a person being shaved (lit. made bald/bare) with a razor. It is again used to depict  the military action of the king of Assyria, and the Assyrians from the northeast (“over [the Euphrates] River”). The victim—i.e., the kingdom of Israel (and/or Judah)—will be shaved completely, including (most shamefully) his pubic hair (lit. hair of the ‘feet’). Even the long beards of the distinguished elders will be “swept away” (vb hp*s*), in a complete and destructive manner.

Saying #3 (vv. 21-22)

“And it shall be, on that day, (that) a man shall keep alive a young calf of (the) cattle; and it shall be (that) from (the) abundance of (her) making milk he shall eat butter-milk—for butter-milk and syrup (is what) every (one) left over in (the) midst of the land shall eat.”

The reference to “butter-milk [ha*m=j#] and syrup [vb^D=]” echoes the oracle in verses 10-17 (v. 15, cf. the previous note). And, as in the prior verse, there is a certain ambiguity in the reference. Is it a promise that the ‘remnant’ in the land will have blessing, eating rich food? Or, is it here a reference to the pathetic condition of the land, such that the survivors will have to subsist on the food given to newly-weaned infants? Almost certainly, the latter sense is intended, confirmed (it would seem) from the imagery in verse 20, where a man is able to keep alive only a young calf from the cattle, and will have to survive by eating whatever milk-product she is able to produce.

Saying #4 (vv. 23-25)

“And it shall be, on that day, (that) every standing-place, in which were there a thousand vines (valued) at a thousand (pieces of) silver, it shall be (a place) for thorn(s), and (even) for weed(s) it shall be. With arrows and with bows (men) shall come here, for all the shall shall come to be thorn(s) and weed(s). And on all the hills that were dug with the hoe, you shall not come there, (for) fear of (the) thorn(s) and weed(s), and it shall be (a place) for sending oxen and for (the) treading of cattle.”

The wording of this saying is rather awkward, repetitive, and less colorful, but the imagery is quite clear. As a result of the Assyrian military invasion (spec. the bowmen), the entire land will be turned into a wilderness, a rough pasture-land overgrown with weeds and thornbushes.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia (Fortress Press: 2015).
Those marked “Blenkinsopp” are to Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 19 (Yale University Press: 2000).

December 26: Isaiah 7:15-17

Isaiah 7:15-17

Many Christians who are familiar with the famous prophecy in Isa 7:14, doubtless are not so familiar with the verses of the prophecy that follow (15-17), nor of the historical context of the oracle (vv. 10-17) as a whole. We have examined this context in the previous notes, along with a careful critical study of verse 14 (cf. the two Christmas day notes [1, 2], along with the supplemental note on the Christian application of the verse). In the remainder of the oracle, we gain a clearer sense of the importance of this child (given the name ±Imm¹nû °E~l) as a prophetic symbol (and sign):

“Butter-milk and syrup he will eat before his knowing to refuse the evil and to choose the good. (So it is) that in (the time) before the young (child) shall know to refuse the evil and to choose the good, the land shall be abandoned, which you abhor, from (the) faces of her two kings.” (vv. 15-16)

In addition to the child’s name (v. 14), the time-frame of his early development serves as a prophetic time-indicator of when the judgment against Aram-Damascus and the kingdom of Israel will occur. The foods mentioned in v. 15 are choice items that presumably would be offered to a newly-weaned child. The noun ha*m=j# refers to a liquid milk/butter product (perhaps similar to Indian ghee), while vb^D= most likely refers to date-syrup (or honey). The basic point of reference is about three years, the same age (3-4) at which the child will begin to understand (“know,” vb ud^y`) enough to refuse (vb sa^m*) what is evil and choose (vb rj^B*) what is good.

Thus the meaning of the prophetic sign is that, within about 3 (or four) years after the child’s birth, the land of Aram-Damascus and the Northern Kingdom will be left behind and abandoned (vb bz~u*). This is very much akin to the prophecy in vv. 8-9 (cf. the discussion in the prior note), referring to the defeat and conquest of the two kingdoms—Aram-Damascus and “Ephraim,” led by the two kings Rezin and Pekah (“son of Remalyah”)—which had joined in an (anti-Assyrian) alliance. This alliance was initially directed against the southern kingdom of Judah (vv. 2, 5-6), and the threat it posed toward Judah is the main reason why the royal court would have come to loathe and abhor (vb JWq) those northern lands; the verb can also connote a sense of fear/dread, which is probably intended here.

The oracle concludes with the dramatic statement in verse 17:

“YHWH shall bring upon you, and upon your people, and upon (the) house of your father, days (the like) of which have not (yet) come, from (the) day (that) Ephrayim turned (away) from (being) upon [i.e. next to] Yehudah…(the) king of Aššûr {Assyria}!”

Without the final words, mentioning the king of Assyria, this verse seems to close the prophecy on a positive note for Judah. That is to say, the days will be days of blessing, alluded to by the rich food that the child will eat, mentioned in v. 15. However, the reference to the king of Assyria creates, instead, an ominous warning, implying that the coming days will be days of danger and judgment.

For this reason, some commentators would view the final words as a later addition, from the time when 6:1-9:6 (and spec. 7:1-17) was incorporated into chapters 2-39 as a whole, with their emphasis on Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah at the end of the 8th century. While this does, in fact, fit the wider prophetic perspective of the book, I tend to think that the original oracle may also have contained this aspect of warning of a possible coming judgment against Judah. If king and people do not trust and remain faithful to YHWH, they may suffer the same fate as the Northern Kingdom.

The oracle would thus have a dual orientation—offering the hope and promise of deliverance, but also containing a warning of coming judgment. Certainly, the editors of chapters 2-39 would have brought out this dual-aspect, relating the events of 735-732 to the later Assyrian invasion of Judah (and siege of Jerusalem), as well as to the Babylonian threat against Judah a century later. In this regard, the name “God-with-Us” (±Imm¹nû °E~l) contains a qualified promise, and does not guarantee that Judah will avoid entirely a destructive judgment at the hands of Assyria.